The sharp pungent aroma of simmering onions filled the smoky air. I blinked rapidly as I peered into the heavy metal pot, which hung over the open fire like a witch’s cauldron. My father stirred the golden, bubbling soup with a long wooden spoon. “You have to cook the onions until they disintegrate completely,” he explained with the gravity of an elder passing down important family secrets. “It can take hours. Only then do you add the meat. And the paprika.”
Most families bring sandwiches and potato salads on picnics. We bring five pounds of pork hocks and a goulash pot. Although born in Canada, I come from an Eastern European cultural background where liverwurst and pork cutlets are common items on the breakfast table. We had a smokehouse in the backyard of the home where I grew up and sausages regularly hung from the roof of the tool shed. Although I am philosophically attracted to the idea of vegetarianism, giving up meat completely is inconceivable to me. In the last couple of year as I’ve crept toward forty and middle age, I have begun to care deeply about things that I used to not think much about. Namely my health and the health of the plant.
Enter Mark Bittman’s Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating, a manifesto on the perilous effect livestock production has on our planet. According to Bittman, eighteen percent of greenhouse gases are produced by industrialized livestock production–more than any other source except energy production. Not only is this a huge contributor to global warming, but it is also not sustainable in the long term. His solution to the problem? Reduce our intake of meat and dairy. How? By going vegan until six o’clock. With this formula, you can easily decrease your consumption of animal products by up to two-thirds, thereby saving the planet, trimming your waistline and your food expenses.
When I read Bittman’s book, his idea struck me as nothing short of brilliant and I immediately decided to put his diet into effect. How hard can it be? I thought. I’m old hat at dieting and this one has the added bonus of a daily built-in splurge–not just a couple of cups of popcorn or a low-fat fudge bar but a whole meal. Including dessert! I almost always have cereal for breakfast. I usually brown bag my lunch during the week. I can easily substitute a vegetarian sandwich for my usual ham or roast beef, and add a larger salad. Bring eggplant curry instead of chicken korma. But then it slowly starts to sink into my brain that vegan doesn’t just mean no meat–it also means no eggs or dairy. I remember the Eggs Benny I like to have at brunch on the weekends with my girlfriends. The lasagna special I treat myself to on Fridays at the Roman-style cafe across from my office. And the biggest minefield of all–Sunday lunch with my family. Maybe this won’t be as easy as I first thought.
But no matter. Once an idea takes hold in my head I’m like a dog with its favorite chew toy; I won’t let it go until something more exciting comes along to distract me. Since it takes twenty-one days to form a new habit, I tell myself to give this new way of eating three weeks. If I hate it, I promise myself I can go back to eating the way I want, which is pretty healthy anyway.
Things start smoothly enough. I stock up on produce and cook a big pot of Spanish beans. I’m not a big bean person, but I quickly figure out that I’m going to need them as a staple in my diet. I cook the beans with loads of garlic and onions and thrown in some tomato sauce. They taste delicious. I remind myself that this is what all those svelte people in the Mediterranean eat on a daily basis.
My parents are out of town on weekend one so this means no family lunch. I end up going out for brunch with my friend Lisa. I ask the waiter for oatmeal and glare at Lisa when she orders the Denver omelet with spicy home fries. “Just order the Benny and have a salad for dinner,” she says impatiently. “Does it really matter which meals are vegan?” I suppose it doesn’t, but for some reason I want to stick to the diet as prescribed. I’m likely to get confused if I start changing meals around.
Even though I’ve had some form of cereal for breakfast almost every day for the past five years, by Monday I’m dreaming of soft mounds of scrambled eggs with sides of sausage and crisp bacon. It takes every ounce of strength I have to pull the box of Go Lean from the kitchen cupboard. I pour soy milk on my cereal and worry about estrogens.
My breakfast mishap notwithstanding, I’m starting to get the hang of being vegan until six o’clock. I realize this would be a lot harder if I ate out a lot or didn’t know how to cook. I do some research on ethnic cuisines and find that people in a lot of countries eat a diet that is predominantly vegetarian or vegan. I’ve always counted on butter and cheese to give my food flavor. Now I find that I’m relying more on different herbs and spices. I start experimenting in the kitchen and come up with some curry dishes and tasty vegetable soups. I also discover a myriad of ways with quinoa, a grain that I’d only recently tried. I like it so much that I start eating it instead of my Kashi cereal, sprinkled with brown sugar and cinnamon, topped off with a dollop of nut milk.
I also discover the less people you tell about a new diet, the better. Although they are well-meaning, they often try to give you unwanted advice. Others feel threatened and try to sabotage your efforts with chocolate cake and pumpkin pie.
I finally have lunch with my parents. My mother is upset because I won’t eat her pork chops. She thinks I’m doing this to lose weight and commands me to accept myself. My father tells me that his great-uncle ate lard sandwiches for lunch every day and lived to be a hundred.
Soon, the three weeks are over. I’ve kept a diary of everything I’ve eaten and am surprised that I’ve had a lot less meat for dinner, too. I’ve had some fish, once I had a chicken breast, but overall a large portion of my meals have been meatless and often dairy-free.
I wish I could say that I loved this new way of eating so much that when the twenty-one days were up I decided never to eat meat again. The truth is, the first thing I did was make myself a big, juicy steak and baked potato loaded with sour cream and bacon bits. But instead of taking it for granted like I used to, I savored every bite.
Although I may not be so strict about which meals are vegan, I’m now eating far less meat and dairy, which is Mark Bittman’s whole point.
And like Mr. Bittman, maybe I’ll even manage to lose a few pounds.
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Food images courtesy of Microsoft Office.